Sunday, 31 August 2014
The Complete Short Stories - J.G.Ballard (2001)
As a teenager in the 1980’s J.G. Ballard was a name that had been dropped by some musicians I admired, such as Ian Curtis and David Bowie. Dutifully I went out and bought Ballard’s novel Crash (1973). I was ill prepared for Ballard’s psycho sexual narrative about a character with an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. I haven’t read it again since, but it has certainly stayed with me. Ballard is a unique writer who is not easily pigeonholed into a specific genre; some of his short stories can by recognized as science fiction, but the majority are distinctively his own voice. This is the definitive collection, with 96 stories across 1184 pages and like Crash, most of them are now nestled in my subconscious, destined to emerge and take flight like the sand-rays that populate Vermillion Sands.
The stories set in Vermillion Sands, a surreal coastal desert-scape dotted with settlements, are perhaps Ballard’s most impressive short stories. Ballard wrote the Vermillion Sands stories between 1956 and 1970. This collection opens with one of his first published stories, Prima Belladonna (1956), which is set in Vermillion Sands. The Vermillion Sands stories are populated by listless, often psychologically intense protagonists who encounter other characters that are eccentric, or are involved in surreal and intense situations. These stories contain some of Ballard’s best imagistic prose. Vermillion Sands itself is a desert dream-scape; an environment of the subconscious that compliments the intense psychology of many of the adventurers, drifters and artists staying there. The desert of Vermillion Sands features sonic sculptures, rocks that grow and emit sounds when influenced by people or the environment around them. They feature heavily in Venus Smiles (1957) and The Singing Statues (1962), but appear in most of the other Vermillion Sands stories. Perhaps my favourite of these stories is Cry Hope, Cry Fury (1966), which features typically psychologically fraught characters creating paintings that are made with photosensitive paint that interprets an image of the sitter over many days. As with all the Vermillion Sand stories, the blend of weird technology and intense psychology is spellbinding.
In Ballard’s brief one page introduction he states that “Short stories have always been important to me. I like their snapshot quality, their ability to focus intensely on a single subject.” He goes on to say that “...there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.” Such a statement is, of course, debatable, but a great percentage of these collected stories are either perfect, near perfect or at least satisfyingly thought provoking. It is fascinating to witness Ballard’s development across thirty six years of short story writing. There is an evolution of style and ideas across the decades, but perhaps what is most interesting is what they have in common. The complexity of the human psyche held a strong fascination for Ballard. Many of the stories have significant psychological themes, such as My Dream of Flying to Wake Island (1974), in which the protagonist, Melville, is obsessed with digging up wrecked WWII planes from coastal sand dunes and flying to Wake island in the Pacific, which is a near impossible journey. The story is a representation of a mental state, rather than having a plot with a traditional narrative arc, which is the case with many of these short stories. Minus One (1963) is particularly brilliant; set in Green Hill Asylum, the asylum’s director decides to deal with the seemingly impossible problem of an escaped inmate by concluding that he didn’t actually exist and that he was the result of a mass delusion by the asylum staff. The ultimate problem this creates results in a darkly humorous and disturbing ending.
The environment, both natural and built, and how it can influence humans psychologically features strongly in Ballard’s work. I’ve been reliably informed by a work colleague that the correct term for this is psycho-geography. The coastal desert-scape of the Vermillion Sands stories certainly fits that description. Ballard’s infamous experimental story, The Terminal Beach (1964) best represents this theme. A man called Traven lives on an island entirely given over to the machinery of war and nuclear testing; an island that is “...synthetic, a man made artifact...” The synthetic island that Traven lives on is a manifestation of the post war human psyche. It makes for disturbing reading and its effect on the reader is almost subliminal. The psycho-geography theme is taken even further in the 1976 story, The Ultimate City, which is set in a future where fossil fuels have run out and most people live in self sustaining rural settlements. Ballard’s protagonist, Halloway, ends up back in a deserted city much like New York and gets caught up in a quest to bring back a portion of the city to how it was before everything changed. It gradually becomes apparent that the transition in Halloway’s psyche is a direct result of the built environment, shifting the story from a post apocalyptic adventure into a dark satire on the subtle terrors of modern life.
Ultimately this collection is a tribute to the brilliant sensibility of J.G. Ballard, which has been appropriately labelled ‘Ballardian.’ Ballard’s almost genre-less stories are a world unto themselves and throb with a singular luminous intensity that is wholly satisfying. Ballard’s style is literary, experimental, erudite and at times darkly satirical. The scope of Ballard’s writing is overwhelming, however many of these stories can be found in smaller collections, which might be a good place to start for the Ballardian novice. The Vermillion Sands stories have been collected in an eponymously titled publication that was first released in 1971, but has been republished many times since. The Vermillion Sands stories are addictive and to paraphrase the late William Burroughs, they give you a literary high; read them and I can guarantee that you’ll be ready to move on to this collection.
Image: An analogue to Vermillion Sands and the singing sculptures? The Pinnacles, just north of Perth.